Friday, June 29, 2007

A New Fixation

Wherein our correspondent chronicles his very first experience with a fixed-gear bicycle, for the benefit of others who may follow this enlightening route.

There are no new puns left to make about fixies. None.

So I was riding around the criterium course at last weekend's Cox Cycling Classic in Providence, wondering why I wasn't racing, when a nitwit decided to pull over from the middle of the road all the way to the kerb—right in front of me, without looking over his shoulder—to greet his friends. Naturally I went down, hard. Because of the way the universe works, not only did he not crash, he didn't even notice what he'd done. It was left to his friends to come over to help. No road-rash, but it did remind me of why I don't race.

Friends are admittedly important—perhaps the most important thing in the world. But more important even than my front derailleur? Not only is it busted, but so (I shudder to even think about the cost this will involve) possibly is the front derailleur hanger, which in turn is part of the rear assembly of the bike: everything's just more complicated on a Bike Friday.

Anyway, since I'm feeling in particularly good riding form right now, I was fairly upset after dropping off the bike at my LBS, the Hub. As I was leaving the store, though, I realized I was...surrounded by bikes! So I asked Jesse whether he'd rent me one. Knowing I've been eyeing fixies for a while, he loaned me a brand new KBS. It was so pristine I was afraid to take it (how many falls does it take to learn to ride a fixie?), but with a twinkle in his eye he said, “Consider it a test ride”. Dangerous words.

Getting started was a bit terrifying, and my first day I doubt I exceeded 6-8mph. I was getting passed with abandon by people wearing cotton t-shirts riding flat-bar hybrids with zany pedalling styles—nothing against any of that, bless their souls, but it did make me, in lycra and gear, feel rather ridiculous. The second day I was well over 10mph. And I've learned a bit about the fixie experience.

My main concern was about needing to stay conscious of always pedaling (this is a fixed-gear, not just a single-speed). It turns out I needn't have worried. The momentum of the rear wheel is such that there is no real danger of stopping cold because you forgot to pedal. I went into turns and other configurations where I normally wouldn't be pedaling, and the momentum gave my leg the little kick it needed to remember to stay in motion; indeed, it would have taken effort to not stay moving.

The truly hard thing, I've learned, is stopping. There's a funny motion to it. Say your left foot is at 12 o'clock. You need to use your right foot to initiate braking. So as your right foot moves up to 12 o'clock, you keep adding resistance. So far so good.

Suppose, however, you don't come to a stop. Now your right foot goes over the which point gravity pulls it down, and you have to make a conscious effort to (disregarding all your hard-earned, pedal-in-circles muscle-memory) push down on your left foot...but only until it peaks at 12 o'clock, and so on. As a result of not stopping by the time the countervailing foot had reached 12 o'clock, I would end up going through another pedal circulation, and another, and another.

I realized that I just needed to push down harder, but then I began to feel a rather strange sensation. Never having experienced it before I began to ease off, which of course led me back to the almost-but-never-quite-stopping cycle. A few minutes later I finally figured it out. That sensation was a muscle that I had never exercised, indeed even experienced, before, being called into duty. Marveling at the human body and letting the muscle do its job did the trick: I am now stopping (from low velocities of about 10-12mph) very nearly on command. (Though just as I came to believe this a squirrel ran half-way across my lane and planted itself there, losing me a few hundred heart-beats that I will never recover.)

So, yes, I'm hooked. It's an absolutely wonderful experience, and I can see it doing wonders for my cycling. A single-speed would simply not be the same; after all, I grew up riding nothing but (very few bicycles in India had gears; those that did were deemed “racing” models—usually synonymous with drop-bars—and my folks weren't about to get me one of those). I've parked the KHS for now because it doesn't have a front brake, and my interest is in improving my pedal-stroke, not in acquiring additional bones. Also, it's an ultra-cool, retro-design, all-black hipster model, and I am definitely not worthy of it. I'd proclaim that a fixie is definitely in my future, except I'm afraid the cost of one may be sunk into Bike Friday repairs this summer, pushing the fixie into the more distant future.

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